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Autism in the News: Virginia Tech

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Message Anne McElroy Dachel

Autism in the News: Virginia Tech

Normally autism is local news, a walk to raise awareness, a parent support group meeting or about how autism is affecting our schools. Suddenly that’s changed. In many reports about the horrific shooting at Virginia Tech where 32 people were killed, we’re being told that the gunman had been diagnosed as autistic.

The Houston Chronicle reported, “Cho Seung-Hui was a worry to his family because he did not speak much as a child, and after the family emigrated to the United States doctors thought he might be autistic.” We were also told in the Chronicle that while “autistic individuals often have difficulty communicating, the diagnosis would not necessarily explain his violence.”

On San Francisco’s ABC 7 TV website the same information was given and we were told, “Neither school officials, who have his educational records, nor police who have his medical records, have mentioned such a diagnosis.” Cho was called “clearly psychotic and delusional” by experts in these articles. Other stories noting the gunman’s autism diagnosis didn’t tell us that having autism wouldn’t necessarily result in a shooting rampage.

AutismLink and Autism Center of Pittsburgh Director Cindy Waeltermann issued a statement concerning the revelation that Cho Seung-Hui had autism. She said, "While the entire autism community in Pittsburgh and across the nation are devastated by the recent events at Virginia Tech, we would like to caution the public not to stigmatize children or individuals with autism…. The act of one individual should not reflect upon the entire autistic population It is unfair to blame Cho's actions on autism when he was clearly psychologically impaired and likely had another disorder in addition to his autism.”

This front page coverage of autism won’t be around for long. Back in January, a 16 year old Lincoln-Sudbury High School student in Massachusetts was charged with killing another student with a knife and we were told that this boy had autism. The Boston Globe noted that the accused boy had an “alleged interest in violence and long history of psychological problems… along with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism.” The Asperger’s diagnosis got lots of coverage at the time.

Other than these sensational stories involving shocking tragedies, autism is normally relegated to the back page in the news. Autism is never covered in depth and for the most part, the media has failed to recognize the reality of the autism epidemic.

Members of the press are usually uninformed, misinformed, or under-informed when it comes to autism. The uninformed news people are those who willingly report that autism affects one in every 150 children in the U.S. but at the same time they ignore the dramatic increase from one in 10,000 in the 1970s. They completely miss the obvious and alarming fact that one in every 150 adults doesn’t have autism.

They also don’t speculate about the cause of autism. The misinformed reporters tell us that autism only seems to have increased everywhere among our children. They happily tell us that all the kids with autism are the result of “better diagnosing” and “greater awareness” on the part of doctors. These reporters get information off the official autism website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and are quick to repeat that “several studies have looked at whether there is a relationship between vaccines and autism and that the weight of the evidence indicates that vaccines are not associated with autism.”

The CDC facts become the last word on autism and these reporters completely omit the volumes of scientific research linking the mercury used as a preservative in vaccinations to autism. Those under-informed in the press will report that the rate of autism has dramatically increased in recent years. They’ll tell us about the huge financial burden on our schools because of the skyrocketing number of autistic students. While they do note the controversy involving vaccines and autism, they leave autism as a puzzle that we just don’t understand.

The debate is never fully investigated. The background on the vaccine preservative thimerosal is never examined. In Cindy Waeltermann’s commentary she also tells us that “it is time to recognize autism for the epidemic it is." That probably won’t happen anytime soon however. The press knows that the cause of autism is an explosive controversy and they have avoided taking this on whenever possible. To call autism an epidemic would mean they’d have to explore possible reasons for the exploding numbers. News about autism will be continuing however, but it won’t be because isolated incidences of violence.

My guess is that the sheer numbers and the problems they represent as this generation of autistic children ages into adulthood will put autism back on the front page, Within the next five years we’ll be facing the first wave of young autistic adults requiring our support and care. The headlines about autism will likely read something like, “Huge increase in disability claims threatens Social Security Program.” These eighteen year olds with autism will be going on disability at the same time the first of the baby boom generation is retiring and this will continue year after year. The public will probably have lots of questions about autism then. Most of all they’ll want to know why the press failed to sound any alarm over the numbers and why they never asked for real answers.

Anne McElroy Dachel Chippewa Falls, WI Member: A-CHAMP(Advocates for Children's Health Affected by Mercury Poisoning) National Autism Association (NAA)

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Mother of a son with autism, teacher, member of the National Autism Assoc.

and ACHAMP (Advocates for Children's Health Affected by Mercury Poisoning)

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